What's in a Name? Irreantum

What’s In A Name:

Paul Y. Hoskisson, with Brian M. Hauglid and John Gee

The greatest challenge for persons interested in the meanings of proper names
in the Book of Mormon has to do with those names whose meanings we already know,
such as Rameumptom, “the holy stand” (Alma 31:21); Rabbanah, “powerful or great
king” (Alma 18:13); and Irreantum,1 “many waters” (1 Nephi 17:5). Six such names
with their translations appear in the Book of Mormon.2 Determining their meanings
etymologically is a challenge because any attempt to trace their ancient roots
has to come to results that match the translations given in the Book of Mormon
and do so without many complicated steps. After all, the ancient people who
conferred these names most likely did so with ease, without convoluted linguistic
manipulation. On the other hand, names that are not accompanied by a translation
are open to any number of possible interpretations because the text does not
require a specific outcome.

This study of the name Irreantum has been a double
challenge, for the reason just given and also because it was necessary to delve
into languages outside the Northwest Semitic language group. For the latter
reason, I asked two of my colleagues at Brigham Young University, Brian M. Hauglid
and John Gee, whose specialties are respectively Arabic and Egyptian, to contribute
to this article.

Biblical Hebrew and Egyptian are the obvious first sources
to mine when looking for etymologies for Book of Mormon names. This is because
Lehi, who spoke Hebrew, had also “been taught in the language of the Egyptians”
(Mosiah 1:4) and had in turn apparently instructed his son Nephi in the same
(see 1 Nephi 1:2). Hence, Egyptian and Lehi’s native language, Hebrew, are legitimate
sources to examine for possible etymologies.3 We therefore expect that most Book
of Mormon names, at least those on the small plates, would be derived from Hebrew
or Egyptian or both. Irreantum and other names accompanied by a translation
do not seem to fit into this category.

Why does our English Book of Mormon,
the received text, contain both the transliteration, Irreantum, and its translation,
“many waters”? Because translators of ancient documents normally render either
the transliteration or the translation of a proper name, providing both seems
rather unusual. Indeed, of the 188 transliterated proper names that are original
to the Book of Mormon and reproduce their ancient form (of which Irreantum is
only one example), only 3 percent, that is, six, have also been given a translation. Why
just those six? Why are 97 percent of the unique Book of Mormon names given
only in transliteration, such as Ether and Anti-Nephi-Lehi? The simplest answer
must be not only that the name Irreantum and its translation were recorded on
the small plates but also that the Prophet Joseph Smith dutifully rendered both.

Observing that both transliteration and translation were on the plates only
moves the original question back one step:Why would Nephi include both the name
and its translation on the plates? We can reasonably assume that Nephi believed
that his audience would be able to read the script and the language in which
the small plates were composed. (In order to avoid specificity at this time,
we will call the language of the small plates of Nephi “Nephite.” In fact, the
Book of Mormon never mentions what the language and the script on the small
plates were.)4

If the name Irreantum is Nephite, Nephi would not have needed to supply a translation. He would have expected
his Nephite readers to understand and the translator of his record to provide
either the translation, as with Bountiful (1 Nephi 17:5), or the transliteration,
as with Nahom (1 Nephi 16:34).5 The only rational reason for Nephi to include
both the transliteration and translation is that he did not expect his audience
to immediately grasp the meaning of Irreantum, because it was not a readily
recognizable Nephite word. Irreantum may have been either a newly coined word
in Nephite, thus not immediately transparent for persons who could read that
language, or it could represent a borrowing from another language. In either
case, Nephi would have felt obligated to provide a translation for an audience
that knew only Nephite.

The literary device of supplying the translation of
a foreign word or unknown phrase within a text is called a gloss and is well
documented in ancient Near Eastern texts. Perhaps the most widely known examples
come from the Amarna letters, which were discovered more than a 100 years ago
in central Egypt and which were composed in the land of Canaan in the 14th century
BC These letters, written by scribes who were not native speakers of the language
that they were writing (Middle Babylonian), occasionally exhibit a Canaanite
gloss,6 that is, a translation of a Middle Babylonian word into Canaanite as
a helpful guide to the reader.

If Irreantum is therefore not Nephite, what language
is it? Another way of stating our question is, To what language should we turn
to provide a possible etymology for Irreantum? Hebrew and Egyptian can be ruled
out because Nephi would have expected Nephites to know both languages and both
scripts, just as he did.7 That is, if the small plates were composed in Egyptian
and Irreantum were a Hebrew word, a gloss would not be necessary, and Limestone mountains rise dramatically from the
Indian Ocean along the coast of south Arabia; similar waters were called “Irreantum
by Nephi. Courtesy S. Kent Brown. vice versa. Hence, when looking for an etymology
for Irreantum, we need to look in languages other than Hebrew and Egyptian.
At the same time, we need to restrict the search to roots that would allow the
translation “many waters.”

During the eight years that Lehi and his family traveled
in the wilderness toward the land of Bountiful, they either could have picked
up enough of other local languages to coin exotic placenames or they could have
borrowed non-Nephite place-names from local people, which is evidently the case
with the placename Nahom. Such a language could be ancient South Semitic, which
was used in the general area through which Lehi and his family traveled during
their eight-year journey.

In turning now to Irreantum, and in particular the
first part of the name, the root rwy, whose basic meaning has to do with watering,8
appears in South Semitic pre-Islamic proper names of Arabia. The most interesting
name among these texts is ‘rwy, because it is both the name of a town9 and is
phonologically fairly close to the assumed first element in Irreantum. This
South Semitic place-name apparently exhibits a helping, or prosthetic, letter
aleph attached to the beginning of the root, written here as [‘]. Even though
we do not know the pronunciation of ‘rwy, prefixed alephs normally are added
to break up an initial consonant cluster. Semitic languages do not easily tolerate
an initial consonant cluster, such as str– in strong. Thus, the prefixing
of the aleph strongly suggests that an initial consonant cluster is being broken
up. Because the second letter, w, is a semivowel, it would not create a consonant
cluster with r. More likely, the consonant cluster consisted of a doubled r.
This would account both for the initial vowel and the double r of Irreantum.10

The existence of this root, rwy, in pre-Islamic South Semitic inscriptions might
answer the question of what language other than Hebrew could explain the origin
of Irreantum. Lehi and his family could have borrowed elements or whole words
from one or more South Semitic languages either on their journey to Bountiful
or even after they arrived in Bountiful. If they borrowed whole place-names,
they might have been able to recognize the general meaning of the root because
South Semitic is very similar to Hebrew. However, the form in which Irreantum
occurs in the Book of Mormon might not have been immediately recognizable to
a Nephite.

If we accept the possibility that irre can be derived from an ancient
South Semitic root, perhaps similar to the place-name ‘rwy, with a meaning connected
to watering, then only the –an and the –tum of Irreantum require
explanation. Because ancient peoples of the Near East rarely if ever mixed languages
in coining names,11 both of these elements must be explainable on the basis
of South Semitic. This is precisely what we find. The first element, –an,
is a common affix (a particle appended to a word) used in all the Semitic languages,
including ancient South Semitic. It occurs “especially in abstracts,”12 meaning
abstract nouns, similar to the use of the particle –ship in the English
word kingship. An abstraction from “watering” seems to fit the requirement here
that Irreantum have something to do with water.

As the element is rendered here,
it cannot be a Hebrew form of the affix. Due to the so-called Canaanite shift,
Hebrew and a few other Northwest Semitic languages have a long o where
other Semitic languages have an (accented) long a. Thus, this common Semitic
affix, –an, became –?on in Hebrew.13 Therefore, irre-an fits well what we might expect from a South Semitic word but not from Hebrew,
from which we would expect irre-on. This may be the reason that
at first glance Irreantum might not have been immediately transparent to the
native Nephite reader.

The final presumed element of the name, –tum, could
be derived from the fairly common Semitic root tm(m), which has meanings related
to “completeness” or “wholeness” or “entirety,” as in the last word of the phrase
Urim and Thummim. Thus, a phrase in Isaiah 47:9, which includes the element
–tum and is translated in the KJV as “in their perfection,” literally
means “in their entirety.” But “a more free rendering is in superabundance.”14
If we accept this explanation, then –tum in Irreantum could represent the common
Semitic root tm(m). In keeping with our hypothesis above that irre and –an
could be South Semitic, –tm also occurs as an element in pre-Islamic South
Semitic names.15

To sum up, if Irreantum is a South Semitic name, it could be
composed of irr-an plus –tum. These words would form a two-noun
construct chain that would mean something like “watering of completeness” or
“watering of (super)abundance,” a meaning that is compatible
with the translation “many waters.” Admittedly, arriving at this proposed etymology
required considerable dexterity and several conjectures. But all of the conjectures
fall well within accepted Semitic philological norms.


Because some scholars
in the past have proposed an Egyptian derivation for Irreantum, a glance at
possibilities in Egyptian might be in order. Indeed, such a derivation, if it
were clean and neat, would be desirable. It would obviate the need to propose
Semitic language conjectures that cobble together a number of linguistic possibilities.

It has been suggested that Irreantum might be derived from the Egyptian phrase
iiry’nd.t, attested only in a fourth-century BC Egyptian papyrus.
On the surface this appears to be a good candidate for Irreantum. However, the
suggestion stems perhaps from seeing the determinative for water as the writing
of the word mw, “water.” The writing of both possibilities would be identical,
iiry’nd.t mw. But reading the final signs as mw, “water,” is grammatically
less likely than reading them as the water determinative. A possible later Coptic
equivalent could be ερε-?-Μογ, where the question marks represent the word ‘nd.t, which is unattested in Coptic. We would need a Coptic form, *ωΝτε, from a hypothetical Old Kingdom ‘anvdat (where v represents an unknown
vowel), in order to have a proper vocalization of Irreantum in Nephi’s day.

In addition, the passage in which this lone candidate for Irreantum occurs does
not entirely support the meaning of “many waters.” The words of the passage
that correspond to iiry ‘nd.t have been bolded in the following translation:
“O lord of the slaughter that is beside the water of Busiris, who is over the
water of the ocean, who extends the life of the chief of the palace, who lives
and causes others to live, come that you may protect me from death today, and
the terror and the coming of darkness because I am he who binds on heads and
establishes necks, and who gives breath to the weary of heart” (Urk. VI 67).
Though water is mentioned in the passage, the plain reading of the text does
not seem to support a meaning such as “many waters.” Thus, the suggestion based
on Egyptian, as morphologically tempting as the phrase iiry ‘nd.t may
be, is not any better than the South Semitic proposal above, and in fact may
not be as plausible. In addition, it does not explain why Nephi provided a translation.


In conclusion, the best solution seems to be the South Semitic etymology,
irre-an tum, meaning “watering of completeness” or “watering of
(super) abundance.” Perhaps future scholars will find a cleaner derivation in
Egyptian or an even better suggestion from one or more Semitic languages. Nevertheless,
future explanations would still need to explain why Nephi provided both the
transliteration and the translation and would still need to account for each
element in the name using accepted philological methods. The present South Semitic
suggestion adequately addresses both issues.



1. The printer’s manuscript contains the spelling as we now have it in our 1981 edition of the Book of Mormon. The original manuscript of the Book of Mormon contains a partly readable spelling, Irreantum, where –rre– are only partially legible and the second a has been crossed out. See Royal Skousen’s critical texts, The Original Manuscript of the Book of Mormon: Typographical Facsimile of the Extant Text and The Printer’s Manuscript of the Book of Mormon: Typographical Facsimile of the Entire Text in Two Parts (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2001).

2. The complete list of six are Irreantum, “many waters” (1 Nephi 17:5); Rabbanah, “powerful or great king” (Alma 18:13); Rameumptom, “holy stand” (Alma 31:21); Liahona, “compass” (Alma 37:38); deseret, “honey bee” (Ether 2:3); and Ripliancum, “large, to exceed all” (Ether 15:8). In addition, several proper nouns are rendered into English without the transliteration of the ancient name, such as Bountiful and Desolation.

3. In addition to Hebrew and Egyptian, the following languages could provide help when looking for etymologies of Book of Mormon names, given here in the approximate descending order of importance: Northwest Semitic languages (of which Hebrew is one), such as Ugaritic, Phoenician, and Aramaic; South Semitic, such as Arabic and Epigraphic South Arabian; Assyrian and Babylonian (both are East Semitic languages related to Hebrew, though more distantly than the Northwest and South Semitic languages); Hurrian (a people mentioned in Genesis but who are not related to any other known ethnic group); Hittite (Indo-Europeans who are mentioned in the Bible); and Sumerian (an altogether unrelated language from Mesopotamia that died out as a spoken language about 1,400 years before Lehi left Jerusalem but continued to be used as a classic language until after the time of Christ).

4. Despite popular assumptions, nowhere in the Book of Mormon—small plates or Mormon’s abridgment—does an author or redactor ever state what the language of either set of plates was. Nephi’s statement in 1 Nephi 1:2 is ambiguous because it does not discuss which script he wrote in, leaving open the possibility that “language” could refer to either the spoken language or to the script. Only a thousand years after Lehi is a script ever singled out, and that passage applies to Mormon’s abridgment of the large plates of Nephi only and not to the small plates of Nephi, with which we are dealing (see Mormon 9:32–34). Mosiah 1:4 speaks of the brass plates only, not of the large or the small plates.

5. For example, in 1 Nephi 16:34, the chapter previous to the one in which Irreantum appears, Nephi provided only the transliteration of the place-name Nahom. By contrast, in the very same verse in which Irreantum appears (1 Nephi 17:5), he provided only a translation for the place-name Bountiful.Why provide both transliteration and translation for Irreantum when that is not the normal practice in the Book of Mormon?

6. I use the name Canaanite for simplicity’s sake, knowing that there is still controversy over what that term denotes and connotes. I use it here simply to designate the people in the Late Bronze Age who wrote the letters sent from Palestine to Egypt.

7. For hints at what Nephi and subsequent writers could expect their readers to know, see 1 Nephi 1:2; Mosiah 1:4; and Mormon 9:32–34.

8. In inscriptional Qatabanian the root rwy means “irrigation system” (Stephen D. Ricks, Lexicon of Inscriptional Qatabanian [Roma: Editrice Pontifico Instituto Biblico], 153). In Sabaic yhrwy[n] means to “provide with irrigation,” while rwym is a well or watering place (see Joan Copeland Biella, Dictionary of Old South Arabic: Sabean Dialect, Harvard Semitic Studies 25 [Chico, Calif.: Scholars Press, 1982], 482). Finally, in modern Arabic the root rwy is associated with water for drinking and irrigation (see Edward William Lane, An Arabic-English Lexicon [Beirut, Lebanon: Librairie du Liban, 1980], 3:1194–95).

This root, rwy, also appears in Hebrew and other Northwest Semitic languages. For example, Hebrew has hwr, which has the following meanings in its various verbal forms: Qal, “to drink one’s fill, to be refreshed”; Piel, “to give to drink abundantly, water thoroughly”; and Hif’il, “to water thoroughly” (see Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, CD-ROM version [Leiden: Brill],under hwr). In Ugaritic the root occurs also in a personal name, bn rwy, but the meaning of the name is uncertain (see Frauke Gröndahl, Die Personennamen der Texte aus Ugarit, Studia Pohl 1 [Rome: Pontificium Institutum Biblicum, 1967], 312).

9. G. Lankester Harding, An Index and Concordance of Pre-Islamic Arabian Names and Inscriptions (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1971), 38. (I have not yet been able to find the location of the town based on the information provided, partly because the BYU library does not have the relevant sources.) In addition, there are family, clan, and/or tribe names in pre-Islamic inscriptions, such as rwyn and rwym, containing the root rwy, which in the Arabic form rawiy means “abundant, well watered” (see ibid., 291).

10. Another possibility from pre-Islamic inscriptions, yrwy, is less likely because it is a personal name (see ibid., 668). Yet even this name carries the basic meaning of “watering” and exhibits an initial vowel before the root, though the y would not necessarily suggest a doubling of the r.

11. I am not aware of a single instance of an ancient Semitic name being composed of more than one language, though this may reflect more my ignorance than reality. Some scholars in the past have suggested that Jerusalem is composed of a Sumerian and a Hebrew word. This proposed etymology has been rejected by nearly all Hebrew scholars today.

12. Sabatino Moscati et al., An Introduction to the Comparative Grammar of the Semitic Languages (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1969), 82, §12.21

13. An example of where this shift appears in the Book of Mormon occurs in the place-name Jershon. This name represents no doubt the Hebrew root yrš, “inherit,” plus the Hebrew form of the abstractforming affix –øn. Possible exceptions to the Canaanite shift in Hebrew might be šulhan, “table,” and qorban, “offering” or “sacrifice” (see Moscati et al., Comparative Grammar, 82, §12.21).

14. Koehler and Baumgartner, Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon, under tov, 2,d. The phrase is ketummam.

15. See Harding, Pre-Islamic Arabian Names and Inscriptions, 136, under TM.